Earlier today, I was missing work. Not because I forgot to wake up, either – my car decided it was a great time to break down, right on Sepulveda Boulevard in the middle of West LA morning rush hour. I managed to limp into a Mobil gas station, fill up (there’s an issue where it dies when it hits 1/4 tank of gas), got the car into reverse long enough to get it away from the pumps, and then pushed it another 5 or 6 feet.
I was waiting for a tow truck that never came.
A young man (I judged him 21 or so) sitting on a curb in the alley called out to me – “Excuse me, sir?” and I looked over. He continued, and I began to notice his slight southern drawl “Sir, you wouldn’t happen to have a few dollars so I could get something to eat, would you?”
The kid looked clean. Not like he just hopped out of an Old Spice commercial, but his clothes were in decent shape, his shoes not worn through, and his hair just disheveled enough that it looked intentional. He kind of had the lanky surfer vibe about him, far from uncommon in Los Angeles.
I said I didn’t have any change, which is my standard response to people who ask for money immediately (hey, try living in LA without that policy), unless it’s a buck-fifty for the bus or something. At this point, I was stuck beside my stalled-out car, waiting for a tow truck.
But then he asked if I had any food or water, I said no (I didn’t), and then he asked if I could buy him some chips and a bottle of water to drink. I’m not going to say I have a ‘charity logic’ (that makes me sound like an uppity asshole), but if someone actually asks me for food or water, I have a very hard time saying no. The thought of another human being going without those things is hard for me to stomach. As well it should be. I bought him a bag of Doritos (Cooler Ranch, of course) and a 32oz water bottle.
A parking enforcer then pulled up to my car, and said I was illegally parked… Which I was. I told him the car was dead and that I was waiting on a tow, to which he gave a very helpful “not my problem” kind of shoulder shrug.
I asked my new friend if he would help me push the car further into the alley, where private “No Parking” signs were located (not parking enforcement’s jurisdiction), and he obliged me. We pushed my derelict 300CE in a large U-turn, when a few other men – seemingly out of nowhere – walked up to help push the vehicle along. By that time, I noticed a vacant meter spot on the next street, and with the help of those good Samaritans, my car was soon parked legally for up to 2 hours. I thanked them, and they all walked off, except for the kid, who’d put his chips and water in my car while we attempted to move it.
After that was all said and done, my new friend and I hung out on the street for a while as I waited for the tow truck. He asked me if I could guess how old he was, and I said 21. He replied that he had just turned 18 a few months ago.
He began telling me his story, and the more I listened, the more immaterial my own problems seemed. He had come from Fort Worth, Texas on a Greyhound bus last year, and hoped to “make it” in LA. His friends had told him he had the right sort of personality to “do improv or standup,” and that he just “seemed like a celebrity.” He didn’t sound like he believed it, though. Not really. Even when he said “I just want to do something big, you know?” his eyes, his sense of conviction, just didn’t seem in it.
He’d been living “basically homeless” in Hollywood for some time, but had taken a bus down to Santa Monica earlier in the week because a girl he’d been seeing in the area several months ago claimed he was the father of her child. The child, he later learned, was not his, though he did not seem to find much relief in this – only bitterness toward this unnamed woman, as though the responsibility of offspring might have saved him.
He didn’t at all seem mentally ill, and he didn’t strike me as particularly lacking in intelligence. Misguided, perhaps a bit naive, yes – but not stupid, and definitely not crazy.
He frequently visited the beach when in West LA, he said, and that’s how he often managed to have a roof over his head for a day or two at a time. On the sands of Santa Monica, he would look like a rather typical young man from Southern California – he was actually a pretty handsome guy. He would meet people (often women) on these beaches, and when night came around, ask to crash at their place. In a town so obsessed with image, and him being relatively attractive and very friendly, I don’t doubt that it worked for a second.
What he told me about the rest of his life, though – why he lived in Hollywood most of the time – was rather different. It wasn’t horrifying. It wasn’t disgusting, per se. And it was far from unbelievable. But it was terrible, and it was a reminder to me of how messed up our world – our country, even – still is.
This kid has been making a living as a prostitute in Hollywood. When he first arrived, no money, nowhere to go, he tried to tough it out. Men would drive up and proposition him, offering money, marijuana, or whatever else they could. Eventually, he started listening. I’m guessing hunger and the shame of begging eventually became too much to deal with, and so he went with the opportunity that continued to present itself.
He gets through his days by smoking pot – which his tricks often provide him – and the vague, distant belief that there’s still something better out there for him. He makes 20 or 30 dollars on each client. He has no government issued identification, so he can’t get a legitimate job, and he has no family to speak of. He has no friends – “except hobos.” I will never forget when he told me that “Sometimes, I put on a hat and sunglasses, and walk down around the promenade or the beach, and people look at me like I’m a celebrity. I really like that.”
I gave him a buck fifty for the bus back to Hollywood, and he was gone. I doubt I’ll ever see him again.